Everyone is eager to see a serious competitor for the Apple iPad tablet computer. For the moment, the Dell Streak is the strongest contender we've seen, though its pocket-size design and phone capabilities have us wondering if it shouldn't really be judged as a smartphone. However you want to define it, the Streak's features and design quality are simply too tantalising to ignore, even if its price (around US$500, reportedly) is tough to swallow.
The most notable aspect of the Dell Streak is its design. Chances are, you already know what Google's Android operating system is capable of, and the Streak's phone-like hardware capabilities (camera, touchscreen, memory expansion) are nothing we haven't seen before.
When you pick up a Streak for the first time, the first thing you'll notice is its size. At 6 inches wide, 3.2 inches tall and 0.35 inch thick, the Streak is about the size of a pocket Moleskine notebook. It breaks the norm for smartphone dimensions, yet it's nearly a third the size of Apple's tablet.
The size charts new territory in the middle ground, and potential buyers should be aware that it does not fit naturally as a replacement for your phone or your laptop. That said, if you're having a Goldilocks moment looking for that "just right" compromise between convenience, portability and features, the Streak should be at the top of your list for consideration.
Putting the issue of size aside, the design quality of the Streak is solid, and befitting of the US$500 price range. The 5-inch capacitive touchscreen is covered in a seemingly indestructible Gorilla Glass, developed by Corning, though the tapered edges to the left and right of it use a more conventional scratch-resistant plastic. These same edges also conceal three soft keys (back, menu, home), an earpiece, microphone and a front-facing VGA-resolution camera. We carried the Streak loosely in a messenger bag for weeks, along with keys, loose change and an iPod, and failed to make a dent or scratch in its finish.
On the flip side of the Streak you'll find a 5-megapixel autofocus camera with an integrated LED flash. The camera is awkwardly placed, so your left hand tends to obscure the lens when holding the Streak in its prescribed landscape orientation. Anyone with common sense will, of course, reposition their hand before snapping a photo or recording video, but the fingerprints left on the lens through regular use can cloud image quality if its not cleaned regularly.
The back of the Streak also includes a small speaker grille at the edge of a large battery cover. Along with a removable, rechargeable battery, the Streak battery compartment also offers access to a SIM card slot and the included 16GB microSD memory card. Both the SIM and microSD cards can be swapped out quickly, but removing the door to the battery compartment will automatically shut down the Streak as a safety measure. A cold boot after removing the battery cover takes about 40 seconds.
Slim buttons for volume, power and camera mode run across the top edge of the Streak, along with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack (in-ear headphones come included). Our only complaint with the buttons is that the power and camera buttons have an identical shape and are placed directly next to one another, making it easy to confuse them.
Finally, the bottom of the Streak offers a 30-pin connection, which is similar to (but not compatible with) the iPad's. A USB cable compatible with the connection comes included, along with a wall-charging adapter. The 30-pin connection is also compatible with Dell's AV dock accessory, which is sold separately and includes connections for HDMI, mini-USB and audio line-out.
The Dell Streak fits right in with today's superbly-specced Android smartphones. It ships with Android 1.6 installed, which is a little antique compared to the snazzy Android 2.1 OS available on a device like the Motorola Milestone. Dell is promising an over-the-air update to Android 2.2 down the line, but until then, features such as multi-touch gestures, multiple email inboxes, live wallpaper and Flash video support, are out of reach.
While the Streak doesn't break much new ground in the world of smartphones — as an Android tablet, it's without equal. Similar offerings, such as the Archos 5 or Archos 7 Home Tablet, simply don't have the speed, the specs or the design quality to match the Streak. They've also all lacked one critical feature: the Android App Market.
Arguably, today's fascination with mobile technology is rooted in a larger obsession with apps — the more, the better. Not every app in the Android Market is available for the Streak, and many apps simply aren't optimised for the device's larger screen and landscape orientation. Still, it's a larger pool of apps than we've been able to access on any tablet beyond the iPad.
Just as important is the fact that the Streak's phone, photo and video capabilities allow for some features you won't find on other tablets — including text messaging, video calling (which we tested using Fring), and mobile photo and video uploads.
For those of you too timid to browse and install third-party apps, the Streak offers dozens of great features right out of the box. The home screen offers shortcuts to the web browser, maps, phone, contacts database, messaging, Gmail, camera, YouTube, Amazon MP3 store, the Android music player and a floating Google search bar that responds to type or voice. A tap on the app drawer (located at the top of the screen) reveals dozens of other pre-installed apps, which can be dragged onto one of the Streak's four customisable home screens.
There's a lot to love about how Streak handles the rigours of real-world use. Unlike the lumbering resistive screens of the Android e-readers and Archos tablets we've tested, the capacitive screen of the Streak offers swift reaction times that rival the iPad. The 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor at the core of the Streak had no issues handling any of the tasks we threw at it and provided the type of rapid app launching and switching we've grown accustomed to from high-end Android smartphones.
Website load times are also neck and neck with those from Apple, with some exceptions. Over our local Wi-Fi hotspot, loading the full version of Facebook took just nine seconds on the Streak compared with seven seconds with the iPad. Both devices tied at eight seconds for loading Google News. The New York Times site took a full minute to load on the Streak, compared with 16 seconds on the iPad; however, the Streak was likely stalled by attempting to load Flash video content, while the iPad was specifically served a version of the site optimised for HTML5. We also noticed that the Streak tended to default to mobile versions of websites designed for phones, whereas the iPad's browser typically loaded sites in their full, undiluted form.
Another high point of the Dell Streak is its call quality. Chalk it up to the earpiece and microphone matching up nicely to our ear and mouth, but we found calls to sound clear, both coming and going. In addition to the built-in microphone, the included stereo headset includes an in-line mic and call-answer button, and the Streak supports Bluetooth 2.1 EDR for a full range of wireless calling and accessory capabilities.
We're reasonably satisfied with the Streak's photo and image quality though the max resolution for video capture is 640x480, and as we mentioned previously, image quality suffers from the inescapably smudgy lens.
Now for some bad news. The Streak's touchscreen keyboard — in spite of its consistently quick response time — is a real pain to type on. Because of a numeric keyboard tucked along the right side, our thumbs had to stretch asymmetrically across the keyboard for typing out emails and status updates. On top of that, typing accuracy wasn't good. Its little square keys currently lack multi-touch support, and the predictive text suggestions often caused more harm than good. The situation isn't helped by the numeric pad, which forces our right thumb to stretch awkwardly across the keyboard, causing misfires. Going back to our original concerns over the Streak's size, we feel typing could improve if the device were large enough to perch on a lap and offer a larger keyboard, or small enough to type comfortably with thumbs. Of course, as hand size and dexterity will vary, your results may differ.
The Streak's unique numeric keypad offsets the QWERTY keyboard awkwardly to the left. (Credit: CNET)
We're also disappointed by the Streak's audio quality. Loading media via supported MSC or MTP USB connections worked without any hiccups, but playback through the Streak's headphone jack was plagued by constant background hiss and a generally muffled quality. Throw in the audible pops heard while adjusting the volume, and we think it's safe to say that audio playback quality didn't rank high in Dell's list of priorities. It's about par for mobile phone audio quality — but among the few tablets we've tested in this price range, it sits near the bottom.
Finally, there's battery life. Dell offers no promises on how long you should expect the included battery to stay charged though we've heard reports of up to nine hours of talk time. By default, the Streak's screen brightness is set to about 25 per cent, which we found completely impractical for viewing outdoors. Set at 75 per cent, the Streak's on-screen camera viewfinder becomes usable outdoors, and battery life drains at a noticeably quickened pace.
Though it's in some ways unfair to compare the Streak to a device like the Apple iPad, which is nearly three times its size and capable of containing a larger battery, Dell has forced this comparison on itself by defining the Streak as a tablet. During our informal testing, with screen brightness at a useful 75 per cent, we averaged around six hours of battery life with the Streak, which is nearly half that of the iPad. Bear in mind that an eventual update to Android 2.2 and support for Flash video playback are unlikely to improve the Streak's battery performance. We will update this review with official test results from CNET Labs once they become available.
Via CNET US